SAN JOSE -- With updated water supply predictions painting a more dire scenario than that of just one month ago, Silicon Valley's main water provider is asking users to curb consumption by 20 percent.

That is double of what they asked for at the end of January, and Santa Clara Valley Water District officials said the goal is to prevent groundwater levels from sinking to near critical levels.

"That's our best indicator on the health of water reserves in the county," said Joan Maher, deputy operating officer of the district's water supply division.

She said that despite the dry year for California -- 2013 saw the least rain of any year on record, going back to 1850 -- they were able to start 2014 with a significant supply of groundwater. But if they don't push for greater conservation and with no clue when the drought will end, 2015 could begin just slightly higher than the "critical" stage, at which point water reduction measures of up to 40 percent would be called for.

The water district acts as a wholesaler, selling supplies to 13 water retailers that serve 1.8 million people in Santa Clara County. Those retailers -- including cities such as Gilroy and Santa Clara as well as private companies like San Jose Water Co. -- are ultimately responsible for taking measures to see that users comply with cuts.


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While still in the planning stage, that could entail limiting landscape watering to certain days or hours, or handing out fines to those who won't turn down the tap.

"This is a strong recommendation," said water Boardmember Linda LeZotte, who, like the rest of the board, voted for the reduction plan. "The people with teeth should treat it as a mandatory request."

Boardmember Dennis Kennedy said he has heard from constituents that it is "time to use the stick."

"There are a lot of people really trying to conserve," he said, "and they don't like to see others wasting water."

The last time the Santa Clara Valley Water District requested conservation was in March 2009, toward the end of a three-year-dry spell, when the agency asked residents to cut water use by 15 percent.

At that time, none of the retailers opted for fines, although several implemented rules banning such practices as landscape watering during daylight hours.

The public largely responded. While the conservation goal was in effect for 16 months, Santa Clara County residents cut water use by 15.6 percent, making the goal.

More strict rules have produced more dramatic results. The St. Helena City Council in Napa County ordered 25 percent mandatory rationing in January, with an allotment of 65 gallons per person in a household per day. Fines started at 50 cents per extra gallon used, climbing for repeat offenders. Within two weeks city residents there cut water use by a third.

Paul Rogers contributed to this report. Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.